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Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
23 Jun

The Primal Blueprint Guide to Dining Out

Primal living in a decidedly modern world is mostly awesome, but there are difficult moments we’ve all faced. Things like having to explain the jar of coconut oil and greasy spoon we keep at our office desks, or facing the strange looks we get when doing lunges down the street, pull-ups on tree branches, box jumps on park benches, and overhead presses with our pre-adolescent children – those little moments where you and everyone around you suddenly realize that maybe you’re just slightly different from the “norm.” A bit off, as it were. Of course, we often pride ourselves on our individualism, on our constant skepticism of Conventional Wisdom (especially diet- and fitness-related). If I wasn’t different (or at least willing to consider alternative viewpoints), I might never have questioned the bread-and-ice-cream-fueled chronic cardio way of life that was killing me. If you guys weren’t inherent skeptics, you probably never would have found your way to my blog. If a guy like Sterling scoffed at the supposed preposterousness of eating fat to lose fat, he’d probably still be unhealthy.

So we see that embracing our weirdness is what makes all this possible. You might even say that we have a healthy appreciation for going off the beaten path (actually, the path enjoyed quite a bit of traffic for hundreds of thousands of years, but it’s only recently that it was largely abandoned and the brush allowed to flourish and cover it all up; luckily, we’re armed with razor sharp machetes and dusty old maps).

Sometimes, though, we’re forced to stay on the trail. Sometimes, social obligation requires us to eat at less than appetizing locales. Maybe it’s hitting the local happy hour with co-workers on a Friday or going out to eat at a chain restaurant with family from out of town – whatever the occasion, when we’re stuck in an unfamiliar or unpalatable culinary situation, there are ways to mitigate the potential damage and still remain relatively Primal. Almost any restaurant will have something for you to eat, even if it wasn’t raised in pasture or cooked in healthy fats. Just because the food isn’t ideal doesn’t mean you should order the Awesome Blossom, a large Coke, and a burger and fries. There are alternatives.

  1. Avoid eating out. I’m kinda kidding, but it goes without saying that eating out at chain restaurants on a regular basis probably isn’t a good idea.
  2. Lobby for restaurant-picking powers. If you’re deigning to eat out, the least your companions can do is let you pick the place. Pro-tip: don’t use the word “deign” when trying to pick the restaurant.
  3. Don’t eat. Treat this as an Intermittent Fasting day. If you need visualization, imagine Grok happening across a rotting, stinking carcass. Doesn’t sound so different from most restaurant fare to me.
  4. Be a super modern forager. Scan the menu for anything that might work. If you’re eating Mexican, get the fajitas and lose the rice, beans, and tortillas while upping the veggies, meat, and guacamole.
  5. Make special requests. Yep, you’re gonna have to “be that guy” who customizes his order so much that the final product is completely unrecognizable from the original. Expect eye rolls and audible sighs, but those are a small price to pay for eating right. You can always claim gluten-intolerance or various food allergies if you want to avoid the hassle; they can’t ignore you then.
  6. Remember the 80/20 principle. Think of this as your “20.” As long as you’ve been eating and exercising right consistently, one random meal isn’t going to throw you off. Besides, you’ll probably wake up regretting it and will be even more strict with the food and the workouts.
  7. Make substitutions. All restaurants have vegetables. Most of them will be happy to swap out the starchy foods like rice, bread, or potatoes for steamed or grilled veggies.
  8. Get stuff on the side. For sauces and dressings of indeterminate origin, ask for them on the side. That way you can control their distribution rather than letting the cook slather your food with it.

Some restaurants are more amenable than others. Fast food burger joints, for example, will usually give you the meat surrounded by lettuce instead of bun, and you can always skip the fries. A Brazilian churrascaria, with its heaping platters of meat, sausage, and salad, is perhaps the most Primal restaurant of all – you won’t have any trouble at one of these. But at a pasta house, unless you can convince the waiter to replace the noodles with vegetables, you might have trouble finding something to eat. And dinner at a vegetarian or a raw vegan restaurant will probably be the day you try IF.

Chain Restaurants

What about chain restaurants? These are (rightly) vilified by the Primal set for being bland disseminators of industrial crap masquerading as food, but are there any hidden gems? Okay, maybe “gems” is the wrong word, but there are definitely a few items on the menus that won’t derail your progress entirely.

McDonald’s/Carl’s Jr./Fast Food Burger Joints

Ubiquitous in just about every city in America (and possibly even globally), McDonald’s remains popular. Now, I imagine you haven’t stepped foot in one for years, but there may come a time where you’re faced with the prospect of eating here. If all your other options are exhausted, the best bet is to go for one of the burgers, sans bun. From what I understand, McDonald’s microwaves most of their meat products, but they do grill the Angus Third Pounders, so go for one of those. The data for the Angus Deluxe Third Pounder:

Fat: 41g
SFA: 17g
Trans fat: 2g
Carbs: 62g
Protein: 42g

You can nix most of the carbs by removing the bun. There’ll still be a few left over, but that’s just from the tomato and onion (real food). The trans fat is worrisome and should be avoided. Hopefully, the mayo (probably made from soybean oil) and the processed American cheese product are responsible for it, as those can easily be removed. If they grill the meat in hydrogenated oil, you’re out of luck and will just have to suck it up. It’s not perfect, but you could do a whole lot worse at McDonald’s. Other fast food burger places, like Carl’s Jr. or Wendy’s can probably do the same bun-less burger deal. For you west coasters, In-n-Out makes a great “protein style” bun-less burger.

TGI Friday’s/Applebee’s/Chili’s/etc.

Is there really any difference between these restaurants? They all serve burgers, ribs, salads, sandwiches, and pasta, along with lots of deep-fried and heavily-battered appetizers, and it’s all pretty bland, forgettable stuff. Still, they do have a good happy hour, and they’re pretty popular, so you may find yourself stuck at one with friends or coworkers with your stomach rumbling. Bun-less burgers are an option, of course, as are the salads. If you get a salad, hold the croutons and get the dressing on the side. Unfortunately, chain restaurant salad dressings are usually rife with sugar and industrial vegetable oils (high in Omega 6s), so there aren’t any fantastic options. If you’re lucky, they’ll have olive oil and vinegar on the premises and you can simply make your own. I usually opt for whatever cut of steak they have on the menu. Sure, it ain’t grass-fed or organic, but it is meat, and you can usually request they cook it in butter (rather than corn oil). Skip the mashed potatoes or fries for mixed veggies, and you’re good to go. I couldn’t find any specific data for steak from any of these restaurants, but FitDay says a 10 oz lean sirloin steak looks something like this:

Fat: 31g
SFA: 11g
PUFA: 4g
MUFA: 13g
Carbs: 0g
Protein: 92g

Add some more fat if they honor your request to cook it in butter, along with a few more carbs from the veggies, and you’re looking at a decent meal.

Olive Garden

A carb-lovers paradise, Olive Garden is actually a decent pick for Primal eaters. You obviously won’t be ordering the pasta, but the smattering of grilled items, plus the endless salad bowl, make eating here definitely doable. They even have a low-carb menu, which was a complete surprise. There’s the 14 oz Steak Toscano, cooked in olive oil and served with broccoli and mixed veggies; the Mixed Grill, which consists of skewers of chicken and steak with zucchini and broccoli; the Herb-Grilled Salmon, brushed with olive oil and served with broccoli; the mussels served with a wine, garlic, and onion sauce; and the Pork Filletino, marinated in olive oil and rosemary and served with mixed vegetables. Those all sound pretty delicious and, with the net carbs all under 20g (and none of them coming from starch), very reasonable for Primal eaters.

Which of these ways best describes how you handle dining out?

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The Final Word

Eating out at normal restaurants can be done, and it can be done without sacrificing your progress or ruining your health. Even if you don’t opt for the pseudo-Primal fare at these places and instead just eat whatever you want, don’t beat yourself up over it. After all, an important part of the Primal Blueprint is enjoying life – and eating, drinking, and generally being merry with friends and family is what it’s all about regardless of the food and drink in question.

As for the actual damage to your body from a single chain restaurant meal, it was just a one-time thing (80/20!), and your body can totally handle it. Just remember: the guilt and stress from agonizing over a small lapse in judgment will be more harmful than what you actually ate, so lighten up!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I eat at home always now, but also I love eating out once/week. Ok my chose of is reduced now, with the PB. We go to fish places and grill meat ones.

    I only eat in this fast food places, when I am travelling, and want something quick and move on.

    thania1 wrote on June 24th, 2009
  2. Just about every restaurant has a Ceasar Salad. Order the grilled chicken ceasar with the dressing on the side. Pick around any croutons and you are left with lots of Romaine lettuce (the good stuff not that wilting Iceberg crap) egg, chicken, and a little shredded cheese. Not organic of pastured chickens but not all that bad either and you don’t call much attention to youself for being a food geek. Finish with water and lemon and you are GROKING.

    joe s wrote on June 24th, 2009
  3. Cool post Tommy made w/link to Dateline story about how Chipotle grill gets their pork from Joe Saliton’s Polyface Farm. Joe is THE leader in the pasture raising movement!

    While I haven’t eaten in a fast food restaurant in more than 20 years, now I know I can recommend this place to my cooking students and clients or use it as a back up if I need to meet someone for a business lunch and a local independent restaurant I favor is too far to go to, and I want a better cut of meat with my veggies.

    Great blog post!

    Chef Rachel wrote on June 24th, 2009
  4. I was wondering if anyone considers lentils a legume that fits into the primal blueprint.
    It was first cultivated in the Neolithic era, the last part of the stone age:
    They are also considered one of the world’s healthiest foods in that they lower heart disease risk, stabilize blood sugar levels, and have significant quantities of iron, magnesium and foliate:

    lentilman wrote on June 24th, 2009
  5. I stick to the steak/prime rib and salad plan. I always sub veggies for starches and get no surprise over that at all. Ordered double broccoli the other day to replace two non-primal sides and the waitress didn’t bat an eye.

    JD wrote on June 24th, 2009
  6. I mostly eat @ home, but when i do swaping out starches for veggies is something i always do, and so true, Rest. don’t mind, you’re the customer!

    Donna wrote on June 24th, 2009
  7. Come on folks- grab a newspaper and do some research into local places to eat- stay away from the chains. Most do a far better job and more willing to cook to order. And Diners rock- lucky to have so many here in NJ.

    pjnoir wrote on June 24th, 2009
  8. Last night I was at a rather upscale Italian restaurant, where they charged me $4 for substituting asparagus instead of potatoes. With that substitution, my meal consisted of a steak, spinach, and asparagus, which isn’t that bad (except I don’t know what all everything was cooked in), but I think $4 for such a substitution is ridiculous. I could understand 50 cents or a dollar, but $4?
    Not to mention the waitress’s attitude about why I wanted to sub something for the potatoes.

    AmyMac703 wrote on June 25th, 2009
    • When I get that kind of treatment from a restaurant, I vote with my feet and don’t eat there again.

      If they do that, they’re not serving their customers’ needs.

      jas wrote on January 17th, 2011
  9. What do you guys think about only eating beans and rice, and only drinking water? I would add vegetables and fruits for nutritional value. Plus, this would save hundreds of dollars per month on the grocery bill.

    Mark wrote on June 26th, 2009
  10. Hey in response to the McDonald’s meat choice…here’s the ingredients for the Angus:

    100% Angus beef. Prepared with Grill Seasoning (salt, black pepper) and Angus Burger Seasoning: Salt, sugar, dextrose, onion powder, maltodextrin, natural butter
    flavor (dairy source), autolyzed yeast extract, spices, garlic powder, vegetable protein (hydrolyzed corn, soy and wheat), natural (animal, plant and botanical source)
    and artificial flavors, dried beef broth, sunflower oil, caramel color, partially hydrogenated cottonseed and soybean oil, gum arabic, soy sauce solids (wheat, soybean,
    salt, maltodextrin, caramel color), palm oil, worcestershire sauce powder [distilled vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, salt, caramel color, garlic powder, sugar, spices,
    tamarind, natural flavor (fruit source)], beef fat, annatto and turmeric (color), calcium silicate and soybean oil (prevent caking).

    That is just for the patty itself. The traditional one has these as the ingredients:

    100% pure USDA inspected beef; no fillers, no extenders. Prepared with grill seasoning (salt, black pepper).

    While it is all unhealthy, I’d definitely choose the regular.

    Gil wrote on June 27th, 2009
    • Thanks for posting this. No more Angus burgers for me.

      jas wrote on January 17th, 2011
  11. I go to a Chinese buffet twice a week. There I get baked fish (salmon or tapia), hot wings, steamed broccoli, bok choy, and sometimes beef or chicken off the hibachi grill. They also have cold boiled shrimp.

    Rob wrote on June 28th, 2009
  12. Again all posts on this blog appear to be 2 years old; however, your article mentions eating Salmon at Olive Garden, etc. BIG PROBLEM! Most salmon 80% i USA and also around the world in modern countries are farm-raised. Opposite ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio in wild salmon to farm-raised salmon. SO NOT advisable!

    John D. Pilla wrote on June 20th, 2011
    • Unfortunately, you’re rarely going to find meat in restaurants that is wild or grass fed. It’s all about making the best out of the situation. Try to avoid grains, legumes, and unknown sauces. That’s about all you can do.

      D wrote on February 26th, 2012
  13. I’m kind of disappointed by these kinds of articles because they always focus on chain restaurants. What about individually owned, run by a cook places?

    Find a “nose to tail” place and you’re good as gold, methinks.

    St. John in London, Incanto in San Francisco, The Spotted Pig and The Breslin in New York.

    JFF wrote on August 5th, 2011
  14. I have to disagree with part of the following statement:

    “… dinner at a vegetarian or a raw vegan restaurant will probably be the day you try IF.”

    You might be right about lacking primal choices at a restaurant since I have yet to browse a menu at one(I don’t think there’s one within 100 miles, but I’ll google it later), but it seems like the argument could be extended to raw veganism in general and I must point out that a raw vegan meal is really not as bad for Grok as it sounds in this article, if it’s strictly adhered to.

    I have some good friends who are raw vegans. I don’t agree with their diet of choice, but they love it and they leave me be so I let them be. My fiance and I had dinner at their home and they prepared raw vegan tacos and stuffed poblano peppers, finishing the meal with chocolate (cacao) pie and two flavors of homemade “ice cream.” They did not use a single ingredient that wasn’t 100% paleo/primal-friendly. In fact, since they avoid grains and legumes about 90% of the time because they can’t be (palatably) eaten raw, meat is the only difference between their raw vegan diet and a strict, dairy-free primal/paleo diet.

    The chocolate pie, especially, is a recipe I would have expected to find in the PB Reader-Created Cookbook, with its coconut butter and avocado-based filling and flour-free crust.

    So realistically, if any of our resident health nuts have friends who are health nuts in the raw vegan camp, enjoying a meatless meal together might not go as badly as this article suggests.

    Kristina wrote on November 7th, 2011
  15. I’ve been trying the PB for roughly 3wks now. (My book just arrived yesterday.) so far I’ve lost 13lbs and I have way more energy… I want to call it virility ! Anyway, I hadnt eaten since this morning and had several more hours to work before getting home @7pm, so I tried this Chipotle experiment. I don’t know how closely it resembles a proper PB meal, but it was delicious and I’ve not felt a “spike” yet:

    Carnitas burrito bowl
    Peppers & onions
    Light bit of medium tomatillo salsa

    (no beans, rice, cheese, sc, tortilla, or chips !)

    Andrew wrote on May 9th, 2012
  16. Just wanted to give a heads up that according to the allergy information at Olive Garden:

    Almost everything including all of Mark’s option have soy. I expect this is because when they say “olive oil” they mean “Soybean oil with a drop of olive oil”

    I would be wary of what else they are adding to their food but still a decent choice for your 20. Just don’t think its a free pass.

    Denis wrote on May 23rd, 2012
  17. My boyfriend and I had a knock down drag out fight about my social eating habits. He says if I don’t eat it looks like I’m being snooty when we are out with friends. I couldn’t care less about the food. I’m interested in the company.

    Then I brought food when we went to a friend’s house to stay. His friend told me he thought it was really rude of me to show up at his house with my own food, reasoning that he loves to cook for people.

    I don’t know why everyone else is so invested in what I put in my body but it’s really an issue in my relationship. My boyfriend is one of those eat anything resembling food people (he is fortunately quite thin but has a lot of physical pain – inflammation).


    Jane wrote on June 26th, 2013
  18. God, this post and especially the comments pissed me off. Of course preparing your own food is best but don’t you people ever travel? Take a vacation? Get stuck on the road without your bag of veggies? 95% of the time I cook at home, but I also have a life and have to adjust on the fly so I’m not stuck with fast food. That’s what I was hoping to find here, but I guess I’ll stick with my tried and true diners or salads.

    Susan wrote on July 4th, 2013
    • Susan, I agree. this post was a dissapointment.

      Also, I dont like the out right lies. I love Mark and this site, but…I worked for McDonalds for a while and we didnt have a microwave in the building. This came as a shock to a lot of our customers who needed formula warmed up (I know, but the customers would ask). everyone has always been told that McD’s nukes their burgers – simply not true~they are fried on a huge metal surface.

      Tabs wrote on November 29th, 2013

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